Decoding Your Cat Keeps Families Together
— By Steve Dale
In the introduction to the book Decoding Your Cat, I wrote that “Veterinary behaviorists are last responders. When no one else can assist, they swoop in and save the day.” In other words, veterinary behaviorists help resolve behavioral challenges that might otherwise result in animals being relinquished to a shelter or turned out of doors. And while many dog parents understand that they can turn to a veterinary behaviorist, most cat parents do not realize that the same resources are available to them.
Unlike their feline cousins, dogs with behavioral issues are more likely to receive a second or third chance, and are usually lucky enough to receive help from qualified professionals. Read more about how veterinary behaviorists help dogs in another book I co-edited, called Decoding Your Dog. Historically, cats have not gotten the same treatment, so if a poor kitty repeatedly pees outside the litter box or chases at ankles too many times, she may be banished from her house and lose her family. This is especially tragic since changes in feline behavior are often the result of a serious medical issue that needs to be addressed–and not, as some cat parents assume, due to spite or maliciousness: traits cats are not capable of exhibiting in the first place.
Science and Expertise Matter
When seeking advice, cat parents too often turn to, I’ll say, less conventional choices–from checking a cat’s horoscope to a prophet who literally reads tea leaves to translate what the cat is trying to communicate. “I’m unsure, does a green tea cat differ from an Early Gray?” jokes Dr. Meghan Herron, veterinary behaviorist, and lead editor of Decoding Your Cat. “Of course, the advice we offer is a bit more scientific than tea leaves, but it’s also practical advice,” Dr. Herron says.
In order to help cats live successfully in homes, we need to understand why they behave the way they do. In particular, it was important to me and the 20 other animal behaviorists involved in this project to combat the many entrenched misconceptions we have in our culture about cats as aloof, antisocial, scheming, or spiteful creatures. The last myth is particularly damaging and is patently false, as Meghan E. Herron– DVM DACVB and lead editor of DYC–points out: “No cat has ever been motivated out of spite”. Instead, if cats are doing something we do not like, it’s important to understand that they are simply trying to communicate their needs or signal that they need help. Dr. Amy Pike explains that “Cats do wave a red flag when something is wrong” but we have to pay attention because their cues are often subtle.
Decoding Your Cat thus represents a collaboration of 20 veterinary behaviorists, including Dr. Herron, who participated in putting the book together. It is an expert resource for how to help your cats live in harmony with you and the rest of your family.
Feline Behavior and Medical Issues are often Linked
Dr. Amy Pike explains that cat behavior is their main source of communication, so we need to watch and listen: “Cats do wave a red flag if something is wrong. Well, that is the cat’s perspective. Many times, pet parents don’t notice the change in behavior because cats can be subtle.” Cat parents need to be more aware that any change in behavior may be a result of a medical issue. “Every day when I was in general practice, people said ‘give me the Prozac,’” Herron says. She adds that pet parents want a magic pill to change their cats’ behavior, which doesn’t exist, and may mask a more serious health condition. Pet parents also turn to the Internet, which causes people to misdiagnose their cats’ health problems as behavioral. So, instead of treating kidney disease, for example, they add another litter box to the house, which does nothing to treat the underlying condition.
So if your cat has a sudden change in behavior, it is best to see a veterinarian.
Enrichment is Key To Cat Health, Well-being, and A Key to Solving Behavior Problems
Once you see a veterinarian who says the behavior problem is not medical, then your cat is just doing what’s natural and normal for them. That may include cats’ strong hunting instinct, a desire to scratch and climb all over things and to anything they perceive – from the cats’ perspective – to feel safe. Dr. Herron adds, “When it comes to cats, our (clients) expectations are too often not what cats truly are.”
Enrichment–which refers to providing many opportunities for cats to express natural species-specific behaviors, allowing cats, even and especially those who are indoors, to activate prey drives–makes an enormous difference. For example, Dr. Pike argues that an enriched environment isn’t only important for cats, it is absolutely necessary. Dr. Herron was among the researchers who several years ago found a direct correlation between what was then termed feline lower urinary tract disease and living in a dull and unenriched environment.
For these reasons, an entire chapter of Decoding Your Cat is dedicated entirely to spicing up your cats’ lives, but there’s some mention of enrichment in every chapter. It is that crucial.
Training–it’s not just for the dogs!
One motivation for authoring Decoding Your Dog was to have experts weigh in on the methods by which some dogs are trained, dependent on force and punishment. “We don’t write about damaging cat training, as we did damaging dog training,” says and laughs contributing author, veterinary behaviorist Dr. Julia Albright, associate professor veterinary behavior at University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine, Knoxville. “While cats are way more self-sufficient than dogs, we’re often not fair to cats, not giving them what they need.”
Luckily, this is changing as people realize that cats need training too. “I’m so glad that cats are finally receiving attention they deserve – and hope Decoding Your Cat clears up the long list of misconceptions and misunderstandings people have about cats,” Albright concludes.
If you want to learn more about how to train your cat, read our book and reach out to experts–we are here to help you!
AAPP recommends Decoding Your Cat and Decoding you Dogs as sources of expert information for your fur babies.